HUMBLE, monochrome rice might not seem the likeliest candidate for Instagram stardom. And yet, last summer, a striking image of crab rice drew a whole lot of “likes” on the Instagram feed of JuneBaby, chef Edouardo Jordan’s Seattle restaurant. In a bright-blue bowl, the big white grains—grown by Congaree and Penn, a small farm in Jacksonville, Fla.—looked creamy and sumptuous, adorned with Pacific Northwest crab and a scattering of flower petals. “Thank you @congareeandpenn for crafting some of the best rice in the country for us,” the caption read.
A few months later, chef
then based in Charleston, S.C., posted a lineup of Congaree and Penn products on his own Instagram account. “Those rice grits are everything!” he wrote.
Independent Southern rice producers are getting nationwide attention these days, thanks in part to the enthusiasm (not to mention social-media savvy) of chef-fans. More home cooks, too, are discovering that some of the best rice on offer doesn’t come precooked, in a microwavable envelope, and it isn’t imported, either.
Two Brooks Farm in the Mississippi Delta produces a number of varieties, from Missimati Bayou Bouquet, a fragrant white basmati rice, to Beulah Land Tan, a whole long-grain brown rice. Their rices have pride of place on the menu at Snackbar in Oxford, Miss., where
dishes up a mashup of Southern and French cooking dubbed “Bubba Brasserie,” with frequent nods to the food of his native Gujarat, India. “It’s the only rice I’m using right now,” Mr. Bhatt said of Two Brooks Farm’s products.
Atlanta-based meal-kit delivery service PeachDish features Delta Blues Rice from Ruleville, Miss., alongside the produce, meat and seafood it sources from small-scale producers. Rice has caught up to the farm-to-table trend, and the digital economy provides Southern rice producers access to markets far beyond their region. Through direct sales, Congaree and Penn, Two Brooks Farm and Delta Blues Rice reach more chefs and households.
Even chefs well versed in rice cookery are surprised by the quality of some of the products currently coming out of the South. Mr. Stridiron, who recently returned to his native St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, said he grew up eating rice “20 times per week.” He learned about Congaree and Penn from fellow chef Norman Van Aken and fell hard for the creamy texture of the rice grits. “They were so clean and fresh,” he said. “I’d never had rice that tasted like that.”
Congaree and Penn founder Scott Meyer grows and mills rice on 30 acres of an integrated farm that also includes an orchard of 5,000 mayhaw trees, you-pick muscadine grapes and other crops. The buzz about his rice among chefs began soon after the farm was founded in 2014, when Mr. Meyer connected with members of the Slow Food organization, notably St. Augustine chef
Mr. Gray started with an order of 10 pounds of middlins, the broken grains captured during the process of polishing white rice. Today, Congaree and Penn’s online shop also sells white rice, brown rice and both white- and purple-rice grits, along with other Southern products such as pecan oil and Creole tomato jelly.
When Mr. Jordan opened JuneBaby in Seattle in 2017, he wanted to provide fine-dining interpretations of the Southern and African-American cooking he grew up eating in St. Petersburg, Fla. He fostered relationships with Southern producers from the start. “I knew I was going to highlight rice because of the significance of rice to Southerners, to Africans and to African-Americans,” he said.
One benefit of working with small, upstart farms: They have the ability to adapt with relative ease. Mr. Meyer mills to the chef’s specifications. “We love working with Edouardo because he wants the most raw form of the rice,” he said. The rice he provides Mr. Jordan has only the hull removed and a bit of the immature green grain left in, for a singularly deep, earthy, nutty flavor.
“Chefs are guiding us,” said Mr. Meyer of his still-young operation. “And it helps that we’re not stuck in our ways—because we don’t have ways to be stuck in.”
Carolina Shrimp and Crab Étouffée With Rice Grits
Total Time 1½ hours Serves 4-6
For the grits:
- 5 cups water
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups Congaree and Penn Jupiter rice grits
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 2 tablespoons butter
For the étouffée:
- 3 cups water
- 6 tablespoons, plus more to taste
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 1 pound extra-large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- ½ cup grapeseed oil
- 2 cups finely diced red bell peppers
- 1½ cups finely diced red onions
- 1 cup finely diced celery
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 serrano chile, seeded and finely diced
- 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 6 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ½cup rum or dry white wine
- 1 (16-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
- ½ tablespoon ground cardamom
- 1 tablespoon ground allspice
- 1 pound crab meat
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lime, cut into wedges, for serving
1. Make the grits: In a large pot, combine water, bay leaves and cream. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat and add grits, stirring continuously. Reduce heat slightly and cook grits, stirring frequently, until thickened and tender, 18-20 minutes. Add cheese and butter, stirring until melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm.
2. Make the étouffée: In a medium pot, bring 2 cups water and 6 tablespoons salt to a boil over medium-high heat. Once salt has dissolved, remove from heat. Once brine is cool enough to touch, stir in shrimp. Let sit 15 minutes. Drain and pat shrimp dry with paper towels. Set aside.
3. Heat grapeseed oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add red bell peppers, red onions, celery, garlic, serrano chile, mustard seeds, bay leaves and thyme, and cook until soft, 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle flour over vegetables and add butter to skillet, stirring to combine. Cook, taking care not to brown the vegetables, until mixture begins to thicken and ingredients are well incorporated, 3-5 minutes. Pour in rum to deglaze skillet and allow alcohol to evaporate. Add tomatoes, cardamom, allspice and remaining water, stirring to combine.
4. Add half the crab to skillet and cook, stirring often, until sauce thickens and flavors to develop, 5-7 minutes. Add shrimp and season with salt and pepper to taste.
5. Serve warm grits in bowls topped with étouffée and remaining crab, with lime wedges on the side.
—Adapted from Digby Stridiron, St. Croix, Virgin Islands
Herbed Poached Chicken and Rice
Total Time 25 minutes Serves 2
- 2 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 5 cloves garlic
- 1 onion, quartered
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- ½ cup olive oil
- 15 shishito peppers or Padrón peppers, thinly sliced
- 2 cups cooked Two Brooks Farm Sable black rice
- ½ jalapeno, seeded and finely diced
- 2 tablespoons chopped mint
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons chopped tarragon
- ¼ cup chopped celery leaf
- Juice from ½ lime
1. Poach the chicken: In a medium saucepan, combine chicken thighs, peppercorns, 2 cloves garlic, onion, bay leaf and ½ teaspoon salt. Add enough cold water to cover by 1 inch and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low to maintain a simmer. Cook chicken until an instant-read thermometer inserted in thickest part of thigh reads 165 degrees, 10-14 minutes. Remove chicken from poaching liquid. Once cool enough to handle, shred chicken and discard bones.
2. Mince remaining garlic and set aside.Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add minced garlic and cook until just browned, 2 minutes. Add shishitos and jalapeños, and continue to cook until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Fold in rice, mint, cilantro, parsley, tarragon and celery leaf. Season with salt to taste and continue cook until warmed through. Stir in lime juice, taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Fold in shredded chicken. Serve dish warm or cold as a salad.
—Adapted from Edouado Jordan of JuneBaby, Seattle, Wash.